Lately, offshore fishing for Mahi-Mahi in The Florida Keys has left many an angler with half-eaten baits and the hook just barely missed. Why? From my recent observation, my baits are bigger than the fish I’m finding! The intense offshore search for these incredibly “fun to catch” pelagics has revealed that the fish are here in abundance – schools of dolphin-fish in the hundreds! But, there’s only one problem…they’re tiny…and illegal to keep. With the current size minimum at 20” (to the fork, people – don’t risk that citation!), lots of us are finding that our recent action is a far cry from that world-record of 87 pounds. Sure, some of us have gotten lucky with that rogue slammer, but the majority of my recent catches have been tossed overboard with hopes of catching the same fish again a few months from now after he’s grown a bit.
If I can bring any light to spending lots of time (and money!) attempting to catch big dolphin, but only finding the little guys, it’s this – their population is outstanding. In an environment where conservation is key, it appears to me that this species is extremely hearty and nearly resistant to over-fishing. They eat and grow constantly. Anyone who has tossed a ballyhoo chunk into a school of mahi can appreciate the feeding frenzy that ensues. All day long, their goal is food – preying on the numerous types of bait and juvenile fish taking shelter under sargassum flats, drifting debris, and the occasional floating tree trunk.
Their constant need to eat results in an outstanding growth rate. From the larval stage of 4mm in length, these eating machines can grow to 15mm within 15 days (1). When conditions are right and food is abundant, they can grow 1.3-2.7” in a week (4). Unless they are eaten by a predator or caught (preferably by me – ha, ha!), these fish can live upwards of 3 years with a potential of living to 4-years-old (3). Males and females are discernable by the time they are 4-5 months old. By the time they are 5-7 months old, they spawn continuously (3) replenishing their population greatly.
It’s hard not to consider how depleted the fish population could be 20 years from now. Luckily, it seems as though the dolphin-fish is here to stay. As tempting as it is to box that tiny mahi, handle him with care and let him get back to his friends. We all want to see future generations enjoy what we have now. Although, catching and having to release a ton of these “schoolies” may seem repetitive and frustrating, it ensures that the fish are here now and will be around for years to come. Oh, and, just because your boat is surrounded by a voracious school of shakers, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t a 50-pound slammer hanging out in the shadows! Fish-on, Florida!!!
By Ali H.
(1) FLMNH Ichthyology. (n.d.). Dolphinfish. FLMNG Ichthyology Department. July 15, 2012, http://www.flmnh.ufl.edu/fish/gallery/descript/dolphin/dolphin.html
(2) Ruff, Sam. SFSU Department of Geography. (1999). The Biogeography of the Dolphinfish. July 15, 2012, http://bss.sfsu.edu/holzman/courses/fall99Projects/dolphinfish.htm
(3) TagPelagic.Org. (n.d.) About Dolphinfish. July 15, 2012, http://www.tagpelagic.org/aboutdolphin.html
(4) iOutdoor.com (December 20, 2010). How Fast Do Dolphin Fish Grow. July 15, 2012, http://ioutdoor.com/fishing/how-fast-do-dolphin-grow/